The articles by Chris Waldburger (“Progressive education is failing us”) and Meshach Ogunniyi (“Bring home science into the class”) – both in the Mail & Guardian of July 25 – provide interesting insights into an almost century-long debate about the nature of progressive or “child-centred” curricula.
For Waldburger, academic, classical knowledge must be the core of the curriculum, and for good reason: this knowledge has stood the test of time and has been found to be powerful and empowering for many.
Ogunniyi questions the notion that classical Western knowledge is empowering for all learners, and indeed research has shown that many learners find disciplinary knowledge, as taught in schools, disempowering rather than empowering.
In his arguments on knowledge, however, Waldburger does not take account of learning, including the well-established principle that we can only develop new knowledge in relation to what we already know. Ogunniyi acknowledges this principle, but does not refer to the full range of knowledge that children have developed and that can and must be engaged with in school. Neither article acknowledges fully the role of the teacher in bringing the learner into connection with the knowledge that they need to learn.
Waldburger sets up the traditional dichotomy of the 1960s and 1970s between progressive and liberal education, without taking account of much of the scholarship that has shaped progressive thinking.
The most thoughtful proponent of progressive education, John Dewey, puts to rest the ostensible contradictions between liberal and progressive education. In one of his core texts, The Child and the Curriculum (an accessible yet profound book – recommended to all), Dewey argues that focusing on knowledge at the expense of the child or the child at the expense of knowledge sets up false dichotomies.
Nature of knowledge and learning
Instead, what good education requires is interaction between the child and the curriculum. Taking Dewey’s point seriously requires us to consider both the nature of knowledge and the nature of the learning that needs to happen for that knowledge to be acquired.
Recent work in the sociology of education argues that what should be taught in schools is “powerful knowledge”, and that every child, no matter what his or her background, has the right of access to powerful knowledge as a cultural product.
Powerful knowledge is knowledge that supports new insights on the world, that allows for abstraction, generalisation and specification and that supports the reorganisation of thinking among individuals and society more generally.
Waldburger and Ogunniyi agree that the endpoint of education should be powerful disciplinary knowledge.
However, each leaves out an important part of the picture. Disciplinary knowledge is not monolithic, nor static; rather, it is dynamic and contested by the people who produce the knowledge. Contestation is precisely what produces better knowledge – new knowledge is subject to critical peer review and stringent testing and debate.
To keep this fundamental point about the production of know-ledge away from children is to deny them access to why such know-ledge is powerful, while trying to give them access to the knowledge itself. Much of what is taught at school, both before and after the end of apartheid in South Africa, and globally, is a severely denuded version of disciplinary knowledge.
So we need a knowledge-rich curriculum, where knowledge is presented as a dynamic, human construct.
Accepting this view of knowledge is necessary but not sufficient for a good education. We also have to understand the fundamental psychological principle that we can learn only in relation to what we already know – in my view, the key element of a knowledge-rich, learner-centred education.
The curriculum must both build on and challenge learners’ current thinking. To do this we must allow time and space for teachers to interact with learners to find out what they know, and how they are shifting their knowledge as they learn. We know that people interpret what they see, hear and read, and teachers need to find out how learners are interpreting what they are trying to teach.
To assume that learners hear what we speak is a fundamental error committed by all teachers – the better teachers among us are able to counter this teacher centrism at least some of the time.
Ogunniyi argues that indigenous knowledge is part of learners’ current knowledge and thus can be brought into the curriculum as a pedagogical device to help learners to access disciplinary knowledge. I agree with him on this point but note that learners have a range of knowledge, from everyday life and from previous learning in school, all of which may be useful in helping to develop their knowledge further.
Indigenous knowledge is unlikely to be sufficient to access the full range of powerful knowledge. It is one of a range of strategies that teachers can use to bring learners’ ideas into the classroom and work with them to build disciplinary (and interdisciplinary) knowledge.
I would also add to Ogunniyi’s argument that, where indigenous knowledge is also powerful know-ledge and passes the test of critical peer review, it can and should be taught as an end in the curriculum, not only as a way to other knowledge.
Teacher as bridge
This leads me to the third important part of the educational relationship, the teacher. The teacher is the bridge between the child and the curriculum. We know that education systems that value teachers are far more successful than those that do not.
We also know that teachers need a strong grounding in the content knowledge that they need to teach, which includes how this knowledge has been tested, contested and produced. In addition, teachers need pedagogical content knowledge, which enables them to represent disciplinary knowledge to learners and interact with learners’ understandings of the knowledge.
How we best build this know-ledge among teachers is not yet fully understood, but we do know that teachers who have not experienced a strong school education themselves often struggle to provide strong learning opportunities for those they teach. Good teacher education and development programmes can mitigate the effects of poor schooling to some extent, but they are much more powerful when they can build on strong knowledge developed in school.
So what does all this mean for improving education in South Africa? How do we solve the seemingly intractable problem of poor achievement in relation to countries of similar economic size and in our own terms? Poor education systems beget poor education systems, so how do we bootstrap ourselves out of our failing system?
There are a host of contextual and administrative concerns that I do not have space to go into in this piece. Rather, I have focused on the “instructional core”, the relationships between learner, teacher and knowledge.
Taking knowledge, learners and teachers seriously is key to any improvement. We need to be clear on what we want to teach and why, and work with teachers so that they can teach important ideas. We need to take teachers seriously and value what they know, while acknowledging that they have much to learn. We need to take learners seriously, and support teachers to take learners seriously, valuing and challenging what they bring to the classroom, so that they can learn what we want them to learn.
Knowledge, teaching and learning are fundamentally interrelated; none is more important than the other and shifting one will and must shift the others. We owe it to our children to be clear about these relationships and find ways to strengthen them in our schools.
Karin Brodie is a professor in the school of education at the University of the Witwatersrand